“Make a plan.” That’s what I was told when I asked a friend for some advice about facing the holidays after my husband and daughter were killed in a drunken driving accident. I asked the question because I felt completely lost. It was hard to face any day, let alone a holiday. I had no idea how I would manage a season of joy. Pain and confusion were my reality, not happiness.
Just the anticipation of Christmas left me anxious. I couldn’t imagine summoning the strength to hear Christmas carols and see decorations everywhere. The upcoming festivities fueled my growing sense of being apart from the mainstream of life. The distance between society’s focus on celebration and my own reality of loss couldn’t have been farther apart. Being advised to “make a plan” proved to be wise. Having a plan in place was stabilizing. I knew it wasn’t going to erase my pain, but it allowed me to manage the day in a way that gave me a small sense of control. I put aside what everyone else thought I should do, and tried to figure out what was best for me. That was an important beginning.
I decided to spend some part of the day walking in nature. The woods have always been a place of comfort for me. There, if I wanted to cry, I didn’t have to hold back the tears. I didn’t have to worry about spoiling someone else’s celebration. I wouldn’t have to pretend. I wouldn’t have to make small talk which always sapped my energy. I could be present to what was in my heart; I could be real. Knowing that I had preserved that space for myself was immense.
I also accepted an invitation to share a meal with friends for a couple of hours on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but I did so with their promise that it would be OK if I called at the last minute to say I couldn’t come. Being able to change my mind gave me the freedom I needed. Allowing myself to be honest was strengthening. I knew that when the day came I might or might not have the energy or the will to put on a good face and be with others. But having that possibility in place, whether or not I showed up, made me feel less alone.
To this day, 40 years later, I still remember the two families who invited me to join them on my first Christmas. Interestingly, I cannot remember whether or not I went. It was the invitation itself that mattered. Equally important was asking them to understand that I might change my mind. Removing the pressure of trying to live up to anyone else’s expectations gave me a sense of calm. I could be authentic, and this was an enormous relief. My anticipation of the holiday was actually worse than the day itself. Many find that to be true. On the day itself, I had a plan of action.
Along with making a plan, I gave myself permission to do things differently. That was another key. Some prefer the comfort of familiar traditions, but I didn’t return to those for a while. Smaller venues were easier for me, and I sought situations where I could acknowledge the loss and admit to myself (and others) how trying the holidays were. If I accepted my feelings and stopped hiding them, I felt better. My life was now changed and there was no point pretending that it was the same.
I became more honest. I also became increasingly patient with myself. The mending of the body and heart takes time. I kept my plans as simple as possible, because overextending exhausted me. I tried to get good rest and to eat well. I also learned to shop early in order to avoid being immersed in holiday settings. The ringing of the Salvation Army bells went straight through my tender heart. We weren’t “online” then, 40 years ago, but it would have been a perfect solution.
In succeeding years I began to reach out during the holiday season, making contributions to local charities in memory of my loved ones, or buying a small gift for someone who wouldn’t expect it. When I was ready to do so, I invited others who were spending the holidays alone to join me. It helped to know that, in spite of pain, I could still give. It was a step forward. The giving led to gratitude for the love I had known, and that gratitude led to an awareness that love is the final say, and would carry me through—and it has.